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Richardson v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 9, 2016

Paula Lynette Richardson, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W Colvin, Defendant.


          Honorable John Z. Boyle United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Paula Lynette Richardson seeks review of the Social Security Administration Commissioner's decision denying her application for disability and disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act. (Doc. 1; Doc. 24.) For the reasons below, the Court will vacate the Commissioner's decision and remand this matter for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         I. Background

         On March 25, 2005, Plaintiff filed her first Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, as well as a Title XVI application for supplemental security income. (AR[1] at 174.) Plaintiff alleged that her disability began on December 17, 2004. (Id.) Plaintiff's claims were initially denied on August 5, 2005, and denied upon reconsideration on November 18, 2005. (Id.) In a June 2007 decision, an ALJ found Plaintiff was not entitled to disability insurance or supplemental social security benefits.[2] (Id. at 26, 174-80.)

         On April 20, 2011, Plaintiff filed applications for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, as well as supplemental social security benefits, alleging an onset date of February 28, 2008. (Id. at 262-65.) On October 7, 2011, the Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's applications. (Id. at 26.) On June 29, 2012, the Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's request for reconsideration with regard to her application for disability and disability insurance benefits. (Id.) On July 30 2012, the Commissioner found Plaintiff eligible for supplemental social security benefits. (Id. at 199.)

         Pursuant to Plaintiff's request, a hearing was held on January 16, 2013, before ALJ Claudia L Rosen-Underwood (the ALJ) regarding Plaintiff's application for disability and disability insurance benefits. (Id. at 26-43.) In a decision dated August 30, 2013, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “was not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2011, the last date insured.”[3] (Id. at 43.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. (Id. at 1-4.)

         Having exhausted the administrative review process, on June 26, 2015, Plaintiff sought judicial review of the ALJ's decision by filing a Complaint in this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Doc. 1.) On December 11, 2015, Plaintiff filed an Opening Brief, seeking remand of this case to the Social Security Administration, alleging that the ALJ ignored the opinions of certain examining and non-examining physicians. (Doc. 24 at 8-11.) Plaintiff alleges that those doctors' opinions limit Plaintiff to simple, repetitive tasks and one- to two-step instructions. (Id.) On January 11, 2016, Defendant filed a Response Brief in support of the Commissioner's decision. (Doc. 26.) On January 25, 2016, Plaintiff filed a Reply Brief. (Doc. 27.)

         II. Legal Standards

         a. Standard of Review

         The Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), provides for judicial review of the Commissioner's disability benefits determinations. The Court may set aside the Commissioner's disability determination only if the determination is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007); Marcia v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 172, 174 (9th Cir. 1990). “‘Substantial evidence' means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007); see also Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998).

         In determining whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, the Court considers the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and that which detracts from the ALJ's conclusions. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720; Tylitzki v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 1411, 1413 (9th Cir. 1993). The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts, ambiguity, and determining credibility. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). The Court “must uphold the ALJ's decision where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation.” Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1039. “However, a reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a ‘specific quantum of supporting evidence.'” Orn, 495 F.3d at 630 (quoting Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). The Court reviews only those issues raised by the party challenging the ALJ's decision. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). Similarly, the Court reviews “only the reasons provided by the ALJ in the disability determination and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1010 (9th Cir. 2014).

         b. The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation Process

         To be eligible for Social Security benefits, a claimant must show an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). A person is under a disability only:

if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         The ALJ follows a five-step evaluation process to determine whether an applicant is disabled under the Social Security Act:

The five-step process for disability determinations begins, at the first and second steps, by asking whether a claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity” and considering the severity of the claimant's impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(ii). If the inquiry continues beyond the second step, the third step asks whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals a listing under 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 and meets the duration requirement. See Id. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is considered disabled and benefits are awarded, ending the inquiry. See Id. If the process continues beyond the third step, the fourth and fifth steps consider the claimant's “residual functional capacity” in determining whether the claimant can still do past relevant work or make an adjustment to other work. See Id. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv)-(v).

Kennedy v. Colvin, 738 F.3d 1172, 1175 (9th Cir. 2013). “The burden of proof is on the claimant at steps one through four, but shifts to the Commissioner at step five.” Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009).

         Applying the five-step evaluation process, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled from the time period of February 28, 2008 (the alleged onset date) to December 31, 2011 (the last date insured), and is not entitled to benefits. (AR at 29-43.) At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity from the alleged onset date through her last date insured. (Id. at 29.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairment: insulin dependent diabetes mellitus with peripheral neuropathy. (Id. at 30.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff's other alleged mental and physical impairments did not cause more than a minimal limitation in basic work activities and, therefore, were not severe. (Id. at 30-33.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404 (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526). (Id. at 33.)

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(a). (Id. at 33.) The ALJ further determined that Plaintiff is unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (Id. at 42.) Finally, at step five, the ALJ found that the Medical-Vocational Rules support a finding that Plaintiff is not disabled, and “considering [Plaintiff's] age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] could have performed.” (Id.) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff could have performed work as a telephone solicitor. (Id.) Given those findings, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from” the alleged onset date through the last date insured. (Id. at 43.)

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ did not explain the weight given to the opinions of: (1) consultative examining physicians Dr. Steingard and Dr. Mansfield; and (2) State agency non-examining physicians Dr. Campbell and Dr. Pereyra. (Doc. ...

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